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If Girls’ And Boys’ Brains Are Alike, Why Are Their Toys So Different?

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Aired 12/9/09

Just in time for Holiday toy shopping, we get a new look at how gender stereotypes can actually hinder a child's development. We'll speak with the author of PINK BRAIN/BLUE BRAIN about why girls need more Legos and boys need more time away from the computer.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Making out a holiday toy list can seem like a trip back in time to the bad old days of gender stereotypes. There's a Barbie doll for Tiffany, a race car for Jason, a toy hair salon for Linda and a science set for Jonathan. Oh and, of course, you can get video games for both boys and girls but usually different video games. Frustrated parents will say, but that's what they want. And many social scientists have constructed elaborate theories about how the sexes are hardwired to like certain things. However, a new book by neuroscientist Lise Eliot challenges those assumptions and puts a new twist on the likes and dislikes that distinguish the sexes. Lise Eliot is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University. Her new book is called “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It.” Lise, welcome to These Days.

LISE ELIOT (Author): Thanks, Maureen. Nice to talk to you.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our audience to join the conversation. Do you have trouble with the frilly pink princess toys for girls or the guns, trucks and monster gifts for boys? Do you think kids instinctively want this stuff? Or are they picking up messages from the larger culture? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Lise, before you began writing the book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” you say you, yourself, were caught up in this Mars/Venus view of the way boys and girls, men and women, operate. First, if you would, explain what the Mars/Venus idea is.

ELIOT: Well, there’s been decades of research on gender differences, sex differences between men and women in our various behavior, personality, cognitive skills and so on. And what Mars/Venus is is just a pop psychology version of that. I think John Gray didn’t even graduate from a accredited graduate school but he stuck a Ph.D. on his name and convinced everybody that men and women are fundamentally different. And he was really focused on relationships and some of it’s a lot of fun and, you know, if you have trouble talking to your husband or your boyfriend, a lot of people saw some truth in what he was saying. But I think it contributed to this general sense that men and women are hardwired to be different. I mean, there’s no question that there are differences but the issue is where do they come from and, more importantly, how much of our differences are plastic, as we like to say in neuroscience, or modifiable by experience.

CAVANAUGH: Because if I’m right, a lot of the Mars/Venus idea presupposed that there were actually profound differences in the male and female brain.

ELIOT: Well, exactly, so what you had was in pop psychology we had the Mars/Venus idea taking off and, of course, all the late night comedians could find lots to joke about, the difference between men and women and reading maps and chit-chatting. But at the same time, you’re right. Neuroscience was really taking off and particularly the ability to image the human brain live while it’s functioning, and there have been studies over the years finding differences between the male and the female brain. There have to be differences when you look at our reliable behavioral differences. But what happened in the science is that any time researchers found something different—there was a famous study in 1995 showing that men and women’s brains were differently activated during language—it hits the news and it’s propagated all over and it fuels the perception that there are large neurologic differences when, in fact, the differences are small. And this finding on language, for example, has been overridden now. Fifteen years later, there’s been 20 equivalent studies, and when you put all the data together, there’s no difference in the way men and women’s brains process language.

CAVANAUGH: Now, so let’s go back to boys and girls then, not when we’re grown up and our brains perhaps are not as plastic as…

ELIOT: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …as we would like them to be. What does the data actually tell us about the difference between boys’ and girls’ brains?

ELIOT: Well, not as much as we’re hearing from a lot of the so-called boy and girl experts. So here’s what we know for sure. Boys’ brains are larger than girls’ brains. Even when they’re the same age and not very different in height, the male brain is about 9% larger than the female brain. And that’s true throughout the lifespan, so at birth and even in adults. Of course, in adults, men are also about 9 or 10% taller and heavier than women, so it seems like there’s sort of a scaling where the organs are bigger. In fact, I managed to find—it wasn’t easy because there’s hundreds of studies on sex differences and the brain, which we all think are somehow related to our intelligence—but there’s almost no studies out there where I found published numbers on sex differences, say, in the liver or the kidney. I really had to dig but when you do dig up those numbers, the heart and the lungs and all that are larger in males as well, so there’s kind of a scaling up. So I can’t get too excited about the different brain sizes. Now something else that turns up, and this is based on our best data of child brain development, which comes from the NIMH, a researcher named Jay Giedd and many colleagues, they found that the female brain, girls’ brains, finish growing earlier than boys’ brains. And, again, this isn’t too surprising because we know girls go through physical puberty about a year or two earlier than boys. But there’s a net shift when our brains go from, sadly, from acquiring mass to they start shedding some of their gray matter and that shift happens earlier in girls than boys.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with neuroscientist Lise Eliot and we’re talking about her new book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” about the differences, the real differences, between boys’ and girls’ brains and what some of the false differences that we’ve been hearing about actually are. And isn’t there something, Lise, about exposure to prenatal testosterone, too, that changes brains?

ELIOT: Well, absolutely. Prenatal testosterone is the key signal for masculinizing the body. Boys, you know, the difference of turning into a little girl with the right plumbing and a little boy depends on testosterone. And we also know that behavior can be shifted by prenatal testosterone exposure. So little girls who are for – in a particular medical case, a genetic disorder, exposed to high levels of prenatal testosterone do behave like tomboys, so they’re more interested in rough and tumble play, they’re more physically active, even maybe more assertive and aggressive. But prenatal testosterone doesn’t affect all aspects of behavior and, importantly, we don’t know yet where in the brain this acts. So while we presume it has an effect, so far studies of women with this disorder who’ve grown up after having been exposed to this prenatal testosterone, there’s nothing in their brains that looks any different from other women’s brains. And so the reality is that there’s a huge variation in brain structure and there is much more variation within either men or women than there is between the average woman and average man, which makes it extremely difficult to say this is the difference between a man’s brain and a woman’s brain.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. So how – so we have these small, differences in boys’ and girls’ brains at the start but then it’s your contention that the culture itself amplifies those differences.

ELIOT: Well, sure. I mean, that’s how all development works. It’s an interaction between nature and nurture. You have small tendencies that become – that get brought out by the environment that you’re reared in or, in some cases, perhaps canceled out. So, for example, the girls with this disorder, with high testosterone, in spite of that exposure, they’re raised as girls and they think of themselves as girls. They very rarely switch genders later in life. So nurture is important. For most children, nurture reinforces nature. So a little boy is born and chances are he’ll be put in different clothes. Parents and other adults will interact with him a little bit differently. I show in the book a few of these more clear cut differences in our parenting. And, of course, most parents today try to be gender neutral but it’s an extremely difficult thing to do. I mean, none of us can really treat individuals without any regard to their gender, their race. I mean, there’s been lots of studies, particularly with racial differences showing how people instinctively respond one way in spite of what they believe or hope to behave. So anyway parents discriminate, if you will, against boys and girls. We tend to emphasize more boys’ strength, and boys are certainly encouraged more to be fearless and not to cry. Girls are given a lot more tolerance for their fear and tears. And, in fact, if we suppress anything in girls it generally is their anger. Girls are not as permitted to express angry feelings which are considered unfeminine.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain.” My guest is neuroscientist Lise Eliot. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and let’s take a call. Ashley is calling from the South Bay. Good morning, Ashley, and welcome to These Days.

ASHLEY (Caller, South Bay): Good morning. Thanks so much. I’m working at the Women’s History Museum so we’ll be interested and anxious to get a copy of Lise’s book to put in our collection. Certainly gender neutrality is a topic of conversation all the time but my personal experience was the first time I went to McDonald’s to get a Happy Meal with my grandsons and upon ordering, the first thing they asked was girl or boy?

ELIOT: Right, I act…

ASHLEY: So help me. And I asked the boys what does that mean? And they said well, it’s the toy, Grandma. So we ordered two boys and a girl and, of course, the girl, I got a nice stuffy little cute ballerina thing and they got this really cool robot. So already, you know, in our commercial society there’s gender things going on that we hardly are aware of.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Ashley. That’s amazing.

ELIOT: Yeah, that’s a great remark. In fact, I talk about exactly that anecdote in my book. I had the same experience, having to make this crucial gender decision when my daughter was three. But – And I’m glad you pointed out the different nature of the two toys because while we know that children are instinctively drawn towards toys with different sorts of properties, the way our marketing works is it – it exaggerates those differences and, furthermore, the kinds of things that kids play with are very important for what skills they reinforce. So you can imagine that push – you know, playing with the cool robot may be a lot better for developing your spatial and three-dimensional skills than with a pretty, frilly doll.

CAVANAUGH: You know, that’s something that’s really fascinating in your book is how you describe this desire within children to identify with their own gender. Tell us about that.

ELIOT: Yeah, it’s pretty clear that once children figure out they’re boys or girls, and that usually happens somewhere between two and three years of age, they’re extremely motivated to live up to that ideal. And it often bewilders parents because mom may not have worn a dress for three years and yet all her daughter wants to wear are pink prince – pink, frilly dresses. But kids are very smart, first of all. If it’s one thing we’ve learned in developmental psychology in the last 20 years or so, is that even babies understand so much more about the world and particularly about gender than we ever used to give them credit for. So even before they themselves identify as male or female, they understand that there’s a – there are two types of people and they fall into these two categories. And they can just categorize, for example, adult voices based on gender. So what happens is, absolutely in our culture we give them two choices. You go to Toys R Us, you go to any clothing store, there’s two choices and that makes it nice and easy for kids because they like opposites. They like big and small, up and down.

CAVANAUGH: Pink and blue.

ELIOT: Pink and blue. And so it makes it very, very simple as they’re trying to sort out the world and see things in black and white to make the choice that fits with their growing sense of identity.

CAVANAUGH: So, Lise, is this where, let’s say, biology and culture intersect? A child’s desire to be known as either a boy or a girl and what our culture, what we say, defines boys and girls?

ELIOT: Well, absolutely. And, really, pink and blue provides the best example because there’s nothing hardwired about girls’ attraction to pink or boys’ attraction to blue. In fact, as Ashley was just calling in from the Women’s History Society, I just learned fairly recently that back in Victorian England, it was boys who were dressed in blue and girls who were…

CAVANAUGH: Umm…

ELIOT: I’m sorry, boys who were dressed in pink, which was considered a more muted version of the red, aggressive color, while girls were dressed in pale blue, which was considered more delicate and angel-like. So these are definitely culturally determined but kids are clever analyzers of the culture and once they figure out the correct color, they go for it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Lise Eliot, taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Rex in San Diego. Good morning, Rex, and welcome to These Days.

REX (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you. I just wanted to thank you, Lise, for the work and the book because I think I’m a living example of what you’re saying. I was actually raised by women, by my mom and two girls, sisters, and so actually later in life I had to learn how to relate more to guys and the way that they relate, which is more, I think, social nurturing.

CAVANAUGH: I see, so you basically had to learn how to communicate with men, is that what you’re saying, Rex?

REX: Yes, I learned how to do it with women and, you know, relate to them really well, sharing my emotions, communicate, plus my mom was really good about not forcing the boy issues that you discussed earlier. She kind of let me – if I wanted to play with a doll that my sister had, she was okay with that. Whereas, you know, initially my stepfather was upset about it. No, no, you know, he needs a truck.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

REX: She let me play with both of them.

ELIOT: Right, and I think that’s a – I really appreciate your comments because, you know, these supposed hardwired differences in verbal skills aren’t hardwired at all. Our verbal skills, our ability to communicate, is so very much determined by the way we’re raised and the way we’re spoken to and the amount of language and the quality of language and the degree of emotion in it. And you do find that men who are – who grow up in all – families of all boys do have a harder time relating to women than men who grow up with sisters or more women in the household. None of this is really hardwired.

CAVANAUGH: It’s fascinating in your book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” Lise, you note that as our culture expands the world, let’s say, for girls and women, as they begin to feel comfortable being girls and women in playing sports and entering traditionally male careers, it seems that boys’ and mens’ worlds seem to be shrinking.

ELIOT: Right, and I think, you know, that is fueling what a lot of people in education are now calling the boy crisis. We’ve always known boys get a little bit worse grades than girls, they aren’t quite as good at sitting still and getting their work done and yet they’ve sort of compensated because boys tend to score higher on standardized tests and they’re good in a more pressure competitive situation. But in schools, what’s happened as girls have done better and better – Now, you know, once women were expected to have careers, the pressure on girls increased, and the expectations, and so not only have they done well in the classroom but they’re moving into extracurricular areas that used to be male domain, you know, like the school government and school newspaper and so on. And as girls have moved into those areas, what you’re finding in some school district is that the boys are moving out, so it becomes very difficult to find boys to run for student government. And I think that is just reflecting, first of all, the need and desire boys and girls both have to be different from each other. You know, as part of our preparation for mating, we want still to distinguish the two genders. But at the same time, the fact that men – male things still have a higher status in our culture. So once girls move into student government then that’s not a macho thing anymore and it becomes less appealing to boys.

CAVANAUGH: Umm.

ELIOT: And you see the same thing in careers. It’s always easier to get women to move into a traditionally male career than it is to get men to move into a traditionally female career like…

CAVANAUGH: Lise, we have to take a short break. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to cut you off there. We’ll continue to talk about this. We’ll also continue to talk a little bit about holiday gift giving season and what perhaps you can do with – to get the right gifts for the boys and girls on your holiday shopping list. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We’ll continue to take your calls in just a minute. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS, and we’re talking about the new book called “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It.” My guest is the author, neuroscientist Lise Eliot. And we’re taking your calls about all things pink brain, blue brain and also about the idea of holiday gift giving season and what you might be thinking about getting the boys and the girls on your shopping list and why. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Lise, I wanted to give you a chance to finish your thought. You were talking about how it’s easier to get women to go into a formerly male dominated field than perhaps to get – I think you were going to say men into the nursing field?

ELIOT: Right. Nursing is a terrific career these days. You have incredible flexibility, it’s well paid, and yet I think last I heard there were maybe 13% of nursing students were male. So, you know, there’s something where it becomes a stigma or status issue. You know, remember that movie “Meet The Parents,” where Ben Stiller is trying to explain to Robert DeNiro how he finds nursing very satisfying.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ELIOT: So it’s just a problem. We have the same issue in – a little bit more urgent in elementary and preschool education. It’s so difficult to get men in those environments and yet what we’re finding is that that’s exactly what boys need now. Part of this boy crisis could really be solved if we had more dedicated, caring men going into early education.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as I’ve been saying, Lise, this is holiday gift giving season and as I mentioned at the very beginning, you know, we have this dichotomy, this sort of filly – frilly, pink princess thing for girls and, you know, the guns, the trucks, the monster gifts for boys. I wonder if you have any kind of a list or suggestions that might actually help boys and girls with – play to their weaknesses so that they can get stronger in certain areas rather than just emphasizing these gender stereotypes.

ELIOT: Yeah, sure. And I think this is something parents used to be more motivated to try to do maybe 20 years ago when we still believed in the role of nurture. I think nowadays parents kind of think, oh, it’s all hardwired and this is what they’re born wanting so we might as well just give it to them. But it’s important to appreciate that toys and play are very important for how it wires up a child early in life and so anything that gets boys talking and relating is going to be beneficial. And so obviously books are always a good choice. I know some people don’t like to give books or they leave that to the grandparents but particularly when children are young, there’s some very entertaining reading out there and I would recommend for boys especially to take a look at nonfiction because they often find that more interesting than girls do. They like information and some of the books for kids now are packed with great pictures and interactive information. Another thing that’ll get boys talking and verbalizing more is to focus on music, you know, so, you know, at some point they all want that iPod…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ELIOT: …and I think as long as it’s primarily used as a music device, I think that’s great. And there’s even some evidence that other forms of music, well, certainly any kind of music with lyrics is going to be good for verbal skills. And, you know, I would definitely not avoid building toys for boys. The traditional Legos and Duplos and Lincoln Logs are terrific for all children. Both boys and girls can really benefit tremendously from the three dimensional experience of putting things together, going from diagrams and building structures out of them.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you’ve been saying – I read that you said that people should maybe think about giving girls Legos more than they actually do, and thinking of ways to get boys from spending so much time at the computer…

ELIOT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …playing video games.

ELIOT: Yeah, and, you know, I think Legos are another example of something that’s become more segregated. I think when they first came out, they were in more generic sorts of colors and now we’ve got these – something like 90% of Legos sets are now purchased for boys in part because the themes like Star Wars and Bionicles are obviously more male directed. But I know my kids all loved Legos when they were little and, yes, my daughter liked it more when they had the little house windows and doors and things where she could build houses. But either way, the experience is great of putting three-dimensional objects together. And then when you talk about computer software, I don’t recommend buying boys a lot more video games. I think they have plenty of exposure as it is. When children are still young, there are some very good phonics and pre-literacy games for boys to give them a leg up on their reading and writing skills. But otherwise, yeah, I’d try to stay away from the electronic stuff to some degree. Maybe the Wii is a little better because it involves more physical activity, which we all need more of these days for both boys and girls.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, is there anything wrong with, let’s say, getting your five year old the Cinderella castle that she’s been wanting?

ELIOT: Of course not. Of course not. And, you know, we don’t want kids to grow up with any kind of complex either. You know, if there’s a toy your child is really pining after, you don’t want to punish them for Christmas. And, certainly, let me talk about the benefits of doll play. There’s tremendous benefits of doll play, particularly, you know, if it’s a baby doll and you’re doing practice parenting. I think there’s a good argument to be said that both boys and girls should be doing more of that. And, you know, both boys and girls are instinctively attracted to babies, to baby faces. I know when my kids were little, we had a book of baby faces and both my boys and girls liked it equally. And by playing with dolls, it does bring out a person’s – it does bring out your verbal and relational side so there’s a lot to be gained from playing with dolls. I think they should be realistic, though. I think that, you know, maybe Barbie and Bretts are not the best body images for girls to be exposed to. But baby dolls are terrific. Stuffed animals are terrific. And I know my boys were even more into stuffed animals than my daughter, perhaps because, you know, in this world, you know, they’re not as comfortable with the dolls. Not that we said anything but in preschool perhaps…

CAVANAUGH: Sure. Let’s take another phone call. Harold is calling from Carlsbad. Good morning, Harold. Welcome to These Days.

HAROLD (Caller, Carlsbad): Hi there.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

HAROLD: Well, I’m the oldest of eight in a family of eight…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HAROLD: …and my mother was, while I don’t see her as particularly masculine or non-feminine, she was – responded more to the idea of this needs to be done and I can do it or I will do it regardless of society’s gender stereotypes for that particular activity. And I think that modeling transferred very strongly to myself and to my other siblings in that we, too – we tend to be more flexible…

CAVANAUGH: Harold, I’m going to stop you there. You sound a little bit like you’re being eaten by a monster on the connection you’re on, and I’m sorry to do that to you because I know you’ve been waiting for a long time but I think we got the general thrust of what you’re saying. And Harold’s experience being raised by a mother who was perhaps not ultra-feminine, his idea of male and female and his idea of being genderized, as being, you know, getting things done being male, or not getting things done as being female, that was sort of – that never really took hold with him, Lise.

ELIOT: Right, and he’s a good example of what social psychologists have found, that in spite of innate biases and differences between boys’ and girls’ interests and abilities, there’s still a very large role of experience and environment in rearing. So children who come from, not surprisingly, more traditional homes where the gender roles are, you know, traditionally defined tend to endorse gender stereotypes more and tend to not demonstrate the crossover abilities as well as children raised in a more gender neutral. It’s not a brilliant revelation but people should realize that there is good science that supports that.

CAVANAUGH: Now the subtitle of your book is “How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps.” What kind of trouble do these gender gaps cause in the long run?

ELIOT: Well, we’re very concerned about gaps in school so there’s a pretty sizable reading gap. Girls read better than boys in pretty much every industrialized country, and the writing gap is even larger. So anything we can do to try to close that. And there is plenty we can do, it’s not inevitable. Yes, reading grows out of verbal skills and girls are more verbal. They do talk a little bit earlier, a month or two earlier, and their vocabularies grow faster than boys’ in the preschool years. But, ultimately, what’s most important for verbal and literacy development is not whether you’re male or female but the number of words your parents addressed to you, the number of books you read, the number of overall experience with letters and words. And so there’s a lot we can do to increase boys’ exposure and perhaps even prevent some of the cases of dyslexia, which is about twice as prevalent in boys than girls.

CAVANAUGH: And what about girls? There’s still this idea of the ability to gauge spatial distances and how that affects math development. What can we do to help little girls close that gap?

ELIOT: Right. Spatial skills are important to a lot of math, higher math and science. You can imagine things like geometry, trigonometry, physics, engineering. Anything where you have to, you know, imagine things in three dimensions depends on your visual spatial abilities. And these are something that may be enhanced by prenatal testosterone, there’s a little bit of evidence for that. But in addition, we know they’re enhanced through experience. And when you think about the ways boys and girls play, pushing those trucks around, throwing those balls, targeting, targeting, over and over is going to promote visual spatial skills in a way that, you know, playing with dolls and having more verbal experiences isn’t going to do. So I would say this is yet another reason where sports are so good for girls, you know, in promoting spatial skills, why those building toys are good. But also, we need to think about spatial skills in education because it’s not something that is formally taught. We do not teach kids to visualize things in 3-D or construct objects early on, and there’s pretty good evidence that children with higher spatial skills do much better in math and can be improved.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that you’re the mother of two boys and a girl. And I’m wondering, how this research, in the few minutes we have left, I’m won – how this research has affected the way you relate to your own kids, if it has at all, and maybe even what you’re getting your children this holiday season.

ELIOT: Oh, good question on the gifts. We’re closing in on Christmas, aren’t we?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ELIOT: Well, my kids, my oldest two are teenagers now, fifteen and thirteen, so if you ask them what they think of mom’s research, uhh, they’ll roll their eyes and say, oh, don’t tell me about that pink/blue stuff again. But, you know, I think that our attitudes are important. And my belief and my husband’s belief in the fundamental plasticity of the brain, you know, has shaped our parenting and the way we interact and I’m proud to say my daughter does very well in math and science and my boys are very good readers and writers, so I think we’ve been able to do some of that cross training that I talk about. But at the same time, as a parent, I will admit it’s a big struggle to fight the culture and sometimes you do have to give in and say, you know, it’s time to buy that frilly dress and let my daughter feel good about herself.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ELIOT: So it’s about – I mean, parenting is such a difficult balance and the gender thing just adds to it. But I don’t think we can ignore it either.

CAVANAUGH: Lise Eliot, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ELIOT: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we apologize to everyone who wanted to get into the conversation. Please post your comments on this or any segment to KPBS.org/TheseDays. Lise Eliot’s book is “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It.” You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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